BC First Nations Spirit Pole

The Cowichan 2008 North American Indigenous Games in Duncan, scheduled for August 3 – 10, was going to be special. With BC150 celebrating 150 years of cultural diversity and achievement since the founding of the colony in1858, it also embraced the Games in all the hoopla. So BC150’s contribution was to sponsor the creation of a ceremonial totem pole. The Spirit Pole was the brainchild of Ron Rice, Cultural Events and Ceremonies Manager and member of the Cowichan First Nations tribe. The extensive, public carving process included having various people throughout British Columbia participate in the carving, as the raw log made its way around the province.

The contract to carve the pole was won by Carey Newman, multi-medium artist hailing from the Coast Salish and Kwatiulth Nations. The 33 year old master carver proposed an intricate and massive undertaking. Collaborating with father and carving mentor, Victor, he planned a detailed carving design along with an elaborate production process involving the public, that was, "something that every one of all ages could take part in.”

"Something that would be similar to the torch relay for the Olympics,” said Newman. "To create awareness for the [Indigenous] Games and share ideals, that is healthy living, honouring Spirit, culture and diversity.”

Newman was fortunate in procuring a 450 year old Western Red Cedar log from the sacred village of Stanley Park. With the 20 foot pole in tow, he and a privileged entourage started a 95 days and 10,000 km. trek around British Columbia. The group of 12 included Newman’s wife, Elaine, his mother, Edith, father and fellow carver Victor (both from Fort Rupert), project coordinator, Marek Tiler, and a band of helpers in various capacities.

Victor and apprentice carver Sterling Thorne, guided the public as each person took a turn at carving. In order to visit more than 50 stops, the circuitous route was a challenge. The logistics of time and synchronizing with various celebrations along the way were a constant strain. Newman reflected, "I needed time to work between [stops]. Some parts need to be completed [before the next stop].” He also had to set up for the next day in accordance with the overall schedule.

In total, 11,599 people lent a hand in carving the pole. "People who took part [carving] were very respectful and careful,” commented Newman. He was impressed with, "how much effort the public used to carve on the Spirit Pole – how far they traveled to get the chance.” He fondly remembered a lady from Fort Nelson who, on Aboriginal Day and her 100th birthday, came to carve for the first time in her life.

Newman reflected, "From Cowichan, it traveled north to the Sunshine Coast, to the lower mainland up to Squamish. Then to Victoria for Victoria Days – that was the longest – through the interior, including the Kootenays east to Golden and Cranbrook.” He continued, "Then we went north to Fort Nelson, back through Prince George for Canada Day. From there it was up through Prince Rupert.”

The odyssey started in May in order to line up with the other major preliminary Games feature, the First Nations Canoes and their Tribal Journeys. The last stretch was traveling from town to town, down the east coast of Vancouver Island, along-side the canoes. As both the carvers and the pullers made their way down the Georgia Strait, the Spirit Pole was on land while the Tribal Journeys were by water. Their common goal was to reach Qu’wutsun Territory together for the August 3rd opening ceremonies.

In the Kuakiutl Nation’s traditional, ocean-going canoe, 30 year old Calvin Scow, a First Nations fisherman and artist from the village of Fort Rupert was last in. On an inspired whim, Scow quit fishing on the spot to join his First Nations community in their Tribal Journey to the Games.

"I needed it – the fun, exercise and the connection with my native culture,” said Scow.

In all, it took 10 pullers, one helmsman and one pacesetter at the helm to provide the muscle, heart and soul to navigate the massive canoe.

"I thought I was in decent shape,” commented Scow. "But it was 10% physical and 90% mental.”

The helmsman, Gordon Twance, Jr. assigned Scow as lead paddle at the bow. With that designation, Scow found himself in a leadership position as team motivator. The trip became a profound personal process. Scow related, "You had to have willpower – to know your limits and go beyond.”

In this fashion, the canoe’s men and women (wearing traditional head bands and other garb) traveled down the eastern coast of Vancouver Island for more than three weeks. Along the way, they were joined by other tribal canoes, including contingents from the Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, Squamish, Bella Bella and the west coast of the Island. Since the Tribal Journeys were a re-enactment of age-old tradition, every person on the course abstained from drugs, including caffeine and alcohol. Upon reflection, many people reported the experience to be life altering.

Coming through the Johnston Strait proved to be a particularly difficult leg of the journey. Having strained for days against the elements, Scow was physically and psychologically spent. The stage was set for Scow to have to reach deep into a part of him that he didn’t know was there.

"There was a mood – a negative energy on the canoe,” said Scow. "I started to chant to keep pace. It was really neat. The chant infused us with energy.”

On the spot, Scow was inspired to author a tribal song, a paddling song, in his native language, Kwakwala. He remarked, "I’ve never written a song. It was neat the way that it came to me; like listening to the echoes of our ancestors going through the Strait.”

Their canoe, along with over one hundred others from 65 different points of origin along coastal North America, landed in Duncan on July 29th. ”Looking to my left, it felt like a sea of people raising their paddles and pounding a beat with Cowichan – all in unison. It was really, really powerful.”

The opening ceremonies and the parade were scheduled for the next day. With over 20,000 participants and spectators in attendance, Duncan was bursting with celebration. As canoe families, supporters and 6,000 athletes marched together in the parade, voices and hearts were woven together in song. Upon arriving at the grounds, Scow found himself overwhelmed by thunderous drumming.

Scow remembered, "There were a hundred drums on either side, pounding together. It was almost surreal.”

In the meantime, Newman had been under pressure to finish carving, paint and add copper. "There were a lot of sleepless nights at the end,” reported Newman.

The completed Spirit Pole, now named "Victory in Spirit, a Story in Wood,” was erected at the Qu’watsun Culture and Conference Centre to mark the grand opening of the Games.

The intricate design, pregnant with meaning and relevance to First Nations spirituality, weaves together depictions of Wolf in the middle, then Salmon and Frog at the base and Eagle (with Moon in front and Sun in back) on top.

In a time context, the "past is echoed in the symmetry of Wolf.” Wolf is an embodiment of ritual, family, guardianship and loyalty. As pathfinder and great teacher, he provides a strong platform for going forward.

The present is depicted by four Salmon swimming upstream. The number four reflects the four directions and four elements. Salmon also stand for hard work and perseverance. This aspect honours the athletes and their efforts. Newman added, "This shows that it hasn’t always been an easy journey between aboriginals and the majority.”

The power of water and sound is portrayed in Frog. "Frog is a cleanser of Spirit,” explained Newman. "He is the speaker and communicator between us and he tells the story of the rest of the Pole”

Eagle, with its strength, healing grace and ability to bridge worlds, looks to the future. It is a positive future where tradition provides the deep connection to the past and community provides the solidarity to learn from each other and grow. On Eagle’s chest is Moon, offering wisdom and guidance. Sun on the back "acknowledges the Cowichan hosts.” (Cowichan means a place to warm your back in the sun).

As an imbedded personal signature, Newman’s personal totem, the Raven, appears in the arms and legs of Frog and in the thigh of Wolf. "It’s something I often do.” Newman explained, "The symbolism and the way it was put together. That’s mine. I was really happy with how it (Spirit Pole) turned out.”

For the accomplished artist and businessman, it was much more than the completion of his first public work of art. The pole symbolizes, "community and First Nation’s culture and a united vision of the future – the strength of a People: healing through sharing, sharing through learning, and learning through generations. The pole echoes the past, pays tribute to the present and looks to the future.” Victory in Spirit, a Story in Wood will be permanently situated at the sports field where Games’ competitions were held.

All in all, the seven day Cowichan 2008 North American Indigenous Games offered not only sports but also traditional food, First Nations art, live performances and aboriginal films. It was an opportunity for people from all backgrounds and cultures to learn from each other and grow as a result. The breadth and depth of this extravaganza was predicated on healing and fellowship. It changed lives.

"I didn’t expect it to be a healing journey,” reported Scow. "It brought me closer to my culture. It made me appreciate who I am that much more.”

Newman said, "It was a big learning experience. I grew up a lot . . . as an artist and a person.